Cargo cult science in the Gulf, news at 11

Credit: WKRG/Mediaite

The Gulf oil tragedy has already shown the ignorance of some reporters about chemistry. However, a Mobile TV station and their chemist has taken it to new heights when they blamed the oil spill for (likely) bad glassware.

WKRG is a local TV news station in Mobile, Alabama; they sent intrepid reporter Jessica Taloney to collect samples of local beach water. (See video of story below.) They asked a local lab to analyze the samples for oil and grease; the lab owner and analytical chemist, Bob Naman, suggested that the level of oil and grease should be pretty close to 5 ppm.

Of course, all the samples showed the presence of oil and grease, with amounts up to 200 ppm. While these results are not particularly surprising, the result of one sample was not obtainable because the chemist claimed that the sample exploded during the extraction. Rather than blame the broken separatory funnel on a star crack or a lack of venting, the chemist said that “We think that it most likely happened due to the presence of methanol, or methane gas, or the presence of the dispersant Corexit.”

No. This is just wrong. Having actually shaken separatory funnels full of mixtures of water and flammable solvents (including methanol!) on a daily or weekly basis for about 10 years now, I have yet to see any of them explode. Surfactants like Corexit are not known for being particularly explosive, especially at room temperature.

I think it is far more likely to be coincidental; in addition, wouldn’t a true explosion have left much less of the funnel? Heaven help us. (When the reporter obtained another sample from the same area 4 days later, the oil and grease concentrations were at the 1 ppm level. Not explosive enough? (That’s a joke, non-chemists.))



  1. Yeah… dude does not have his soup and peanut butter on the same set of shelves as his chemicals and glassware… right?

    For some reason, I’m reminded of a scene from the Fox show Fringe where the eccentric scientist is mixing some brightly colored chemicals (natch) in a flask… then pouring them very professionally in the dry ice trap of the cold finger on his rotovap.

  2. He is definitely not a good chemist of 30 years.

  3. 1:20, 1:34, 1:47, 2:01, 2:10, 2:16, 2:28

    That’s a lot of parts per million.

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